The 40 Year Old Bat Mitzvah

Decorum and Clutter, Part Two

Posted in philosophizing, synagogue life by Juliet on March 16, 2010

Missed Part One? Read it first!

While at Temple Sholom of Ontario, I delved deeper into what it means to identify with a particular stream of Judaism.

Often, differences come out in practical terms, like, “We read this and that prayer but skip that one, so our services are twenty minutes longer,” or “They might name babies only after dead relatives but we do it the ‘right’ way and the namesake often is living.” Or it could be, “The old people here all play mah jonng while the old people there all play chess.”

Prosaic, maybe, but imagine how homesick it makes a person who grows up on mashed potato style latkes for Chanukah to suddenly find himself surrounded only by shredded/grated potato ones, or even worse, no latkes at all, only sufganyot (jelly doughnuts.)

It is the sad truth that confusion, misconceptions, and even flat out prejudice across the streams of Judaism exist.

For instance, I read this in a recent Ten Minutes of Torah:

In the nineteenth century, the Reform movement eliminated the privileges of priests and Levites as remnants of the Temple cult – the restoration of which was no longer hoped for – and called up to the Torah all (male) Jews without distinction. The length of the Torah portion read each week was shortened considerably; only excerpts from the weekly portion were read. Consequently, there was no longer a need for seven aliyot on Shabbat. In North America, the custom of calling people up to the Torah was gradually abandoned in many Reform congregations, as a way of instituting decorum and eliminating “clutter” and “traffic” from the service.

Scott and I became regulars at Temple Sholom’s Saturday morning Torah service, which was an almost three hour affair because our Orthodox-Conservative-Sephardic-Conservative congregation with Rhodesli rabbi operated out of an abundance of caution and did everything you could possibly do during a Torah service; you really earned your coffee and hummus served at the kiddush afterward.

I was fascinated by what we came to call the “yashar koach victory lap”, wherein whoever has read a blessing, had an aliyah, read from the Torah portion or Haftorah, helped lift or bind or carry the Torah, or even pulled a string to open the curtain shielding the Torah inside the ark, takes a lap around the entire room, men shaking hands or slapping each other on the back, women air kissing or hugging.

Yashar koach means “May you grow in strength” and in this context is used like “Way to go!” or “Good job!”

There is absolutely nothing decorous or orderly about the yashar koach victory lap.

It is cluttered. It looks untidy and “old country” and very, very Jewish.

I cannot think of a more Jewish service element than reading Torah together on Shabbat and heartily wishing each other even greater strength in the week to come.

So I was glad that Ten Minutes of Torah continues:

Over the past decades, more of the traditional customs surrounding the reading of the Torah have been revived in Reform worship – the hakafah, or procession with the Torah scroll both before and after the reading; the aliyot (though not always the full seven on Shabbat; seven aliyot do not work well with an abbreviated Torah reading if they appear to take more time and focus than the reading itself!); and the prayers for healing (Mi sh’beirach) that follow upon the reading from the scroll.

What looked unseemly to the Reform movement one hundred years ago is being reclaimed as fundamentally Jewish. And similarly, what felt unfathomable to Conservative Jews in decades past is now coming to pass in many congregations, particularly as people move more often and overall synagogue membership declines.

We have more in common than we have differences, Reform and Conservative Jews.

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